Arch-Conservatives and Whoopi Together

Boy am I out-of-it. Did you know that they made a movie about Dr. King’s speech? Apparently, it is really good, won an Oscar, and stars someone named Colin Firth, who I don’t think is even black.

But I am not completely out of it. I do know that last week Whoopi Goldberg opined on the subject of Governor Cuomo of New York receiving Holy Communion.

But look. This is a golden opportunity for a metaphysical analysis of a moral choice.

For obvious reasons, I will approach it here from the point-of-view of the person giving out Holy Communion.

Crucial point #1: Whenever moral evil of any kind presents itself, perhaps the first question a person should ask himself is, “Whose conscience is this going to be on?”

Aha! We have found the Original Metaphysical Principle for morals: I am morally responsible only for those acts or omissions which are imputable to me.

(In my limited experience with helping people exercise moral discernment, the clarification of who is morally responsible resolves the matter 95% of the time.)

Let’s apply this to the matter at hand. If I am giving out Holy Communion, there are various ways I could do evil. Interiorly, I could doubt the Real Presence or fail to adore the Lord in the sacrament. I could let my mind wander. If I weren’t a priest, I could absurdly think of what I am doing as “my” ministry, rather than as a simple act of charity to help Father in the interest of time or convenience. I could vainly focus on myself instead of trying to disappear behind Christ.

Exteriorly, I could imprudently misjudge my physical or psychological capacity to perform this ministry. I could be negligent in my handling of the vessels. Probably the gravest evil I could do—short of intentionally desecrating the sacrament—would be to act out of human respect in giving out communion. It pretty much goes without saying that the duty of a minister of Holy Communion is to minister the sacrament to those who approach to receive it, no matter who they are, what they look like, how they smell, how they are dressed, etc.

At the same time, the prohibition against acting out of human respect can cut the other way, too. Churches are public places; people who have no idea what they are doing can find themselves in Catholic churches for one reason or another. Visibly out-of-place people often wind up wandering forward in communion processions. The proper thing under such circumstances is kindly to direct the person back to his or her seat. If there is a doubt, a quiet “Are you Catholic?” usually clears the matter up.

My own interior state and my prudent, self-possessed execution of my duty burden my conscience as a minister of Holy Communion. The interior state of other people in the church, thank God, does not. If someone approaches me and makes a sacrilegious communion because he or she does not believe or has not repented of grave sins, it is a terrible thing—but it is not on my conscience. (Provided, of course, that as a teacher and shepherd I have explained to my people how we examine our worthiness to receive Holy Communion.)

Now the $10,000 question: Are there circumstances under which I should refuse to give Holy Communion to someone who approaches in earnest as part of the exercise of his or her Catholic faith?

Receiving Holy Communion in church is a public act. To see someone receive Holy Communion has the potential to edify or disedify the observer. As the minister of Holy Communion, it falls to me to judge whether it would be a scandal to give Holy Communion to someone.

In one essay on this subject, a skilled canonist claimed that the decision about whether or not to give Holy Communion to someone falls to the local bishop. This is not true. Yes, a minister of Holy Communion cannot give the sacrament to anyone he knows to have been excommunicated or interdicted from communion by Church authority. But as for being the judge about whether giving Holy Communion would be a scandal in any other case, this falls not to the diocesan authority but to the minister of Holy Communion himself.

It makes no sense publicly to call for the bishop to “apply Canon 915.” If there is a case to be made for a miscreant’s interdiction, let the case be made in the proper venue.

Have I personally ever felt duty-bound to speak to someone privately and tell him not to come to communion? Yes. Has everyone to whom I so spoke complied? No. Did I then refuse to give the person Holy Communion? No. Under the circumstances, for me to refuse to give communion would have been the bigger scandal.

I am not claiming that a different priest would have reached the same conclusion. My point is: There are distinct ministers of Holy Communion who will someday answer to God for having given the sacrament to various princes and potentates who perhaps should have been refused. If you are in a position to offer informed counsel to any of these people, I say go for it. Otherwise, I think we should all pick up the phone and dial 1-800-MIND-YOUR-BUSINESS.


5 thoughts on “Arch-Conservatives and Whoopi Together

  1. Fr. White, so I looked up Kant’s Moral Metaphysics; and I found:

    Of Quantity

    Of Quality

    Of Relation
    Inherence and Subsistence
    Causality and Dependence

    Of Modality

    And, I also found many other reasons why I went into Engineering, and avoided Philosophy.

    But, it sort of made sense; e.g., Causality and Dependence seems to cover the Relational aspect of Morals — as a parallel, “if it isn’t your pain, it isn’t your problem” is the way one then-nine-year-old I know said it. Then, we use the 800 number. On Quantity and Quality: Unity (one) sin can condemn you to Hell for all time; and all sins are absolutely Real. Of Modality, “aye, there’s the rub.”

    The Pragmatic approach to your granting Communion case seems to come up with the same conclusion you reach through moral metaphysics — private discussion, urging the Communicant to exercise his newly-informed conscience, and denying Communion to none who come forth following that process (the wanders-through are a separate, but trite, case).

    It’s the effective way (and hence part of the pragmatic approach); and it’s increasingly effective as your relationship with the Communicant becomes more intimate. And, it becomes increasingly ineffective as the relationship becomes less intimate — in short, the presiding Bishop has very little chance of coming up with a pragmatic solution to the quandry of public sin in the administering of Communion. The pragmatic approach fails in this case.

    Having said all that — perhaps with a smattering of insights into moral metaphysics, but more than likely, not — the application of moral metaphysics to the administering of Communion by the Bishop to a public sinner appears to be similarly unclear — at least based on recent occurrences — and at least equally ineffective.

  2. Fr MW, linking to me, writes: “In one essay on this subject, a skilled canonist claimed that the decision about whether or not to give Holy Communion to someone falls to the local bishop. This is not true.”

    Excuse me? Where have I ever claimed that this decision falls exclusively to the bishop to the exclusion of other ministers of h.C. under c. 915?

    The context of the Cuomo controversy is Bp. Hubbard’s action in January, and so my comments focus there. Moreover, canon law attributes other responsibilities to the d.b. that it does not set out for pastors (see c. 392), and in some cases only a d.b. will have the resources necessary to make decision. But, I have NEVER asserted that ONLY bishops can make h.C. reception determinations in their diocese. Attentive to the plain text of c. 915 and the sources/interpretations of this law, I could hardly make that claim.

    In any case, please be more careful in ascribing legal conclusions to me, and perhaps consult in general my Canon 915 webpage:

    Dr. Edward Peters

    PS: You have expressly denied that “diocesan authorities” can make the h.C. reception decision. If by “diocesan authority”, you mean the “diocesan bishop”, I am quite sure your claim is wrong. Personally, I doubt you meant to put it that way, but it illustrates the point that writing on law requires precision by professional and amateur alike.

    PPS: Might I also suggest that you not label people you have never met as “arch” anythings? I have a name and would appreciate your extending the same courtesy to me that you extended to Whoopi Goldberg.

  3. Dear Dr. Peters, thank you very much for taking the time to comment here.

    I am sorry that I gave you the impression of discourtesy. I did not mean to refer to you as an “arch-conservative,” but rather myself. Please forgive me. I can’t say that I actually agree with Ms. Goldberg, but I do find myself in her boat in this case. To be honest, I did not refer to you by name because I did not necessarily want to ‘drag you into this.’ I think my fundamental point has to do with discretion and not referring to people by name publicly when doing so is not necessary.

    I must have misunderstood you when you wrote on February 25 that Canon 915 “falls primarily to the diocesan bishop to enforce.” From my amateur point-of-view, it seems to be the minister of Holy Communion who enforces this law, i.e. that Holy Communion is not be given to those excommunicated, interdicted, or obstinately persistent in manifest grave sin.

    I stand by the point I was trying to make. It makes no sense publicly to invoke Canon 915 in a particular pastoral case. If a public figure is causing a scandal, then let him be interdicted from receiving communion by those who have the authority to issue such a sanction.

    If, however, the competent authority declines to interdict the alleged miscreant, then any evil that ensues is on the bishop’s conscience. The particular minister then exercises judgment regarding giving scandal. That judgment can hardly be settled by a public debate, because the circumstances obtaining at the moment when communion is to be given cannot be altogether anticipated.

  4. Pater, I appreciate your comments.

    Your position is still not quite clear to me, but it seems close to saying that, as Canon 915 can never be applied in the practical order (short of undertaking what amounts to a canonical trial), it might as well not even be in the Code.

    If that is your position, I disagree with it, but I don’t think it either novel or irrational.

    Anyway, I hold that ministers of h.C. are required to exercise judgment here, even if (for a host of ecclesiological reasons) primary responsibility falls to the d.b. to enforce Eucharistic discipline. I’m sure you’ll see that point made various ways on the webpage I cited above.

    Best, edp.

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